Child Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests

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Expository: Background on Topic

Priests, bishops, and other members of the Catholic clergy have been sexually and physically abusing minors. There are close to 10,667 plausible accusations of child molestation against Catholic priests in the United States alone, and close to 70,000 worldwide. (“The Nature and Scope…”) Though the scandal has only gained public attention in the late 1900’s and early 2000’s, sexual abuse in a religious institution is not a new concept. Archived Vatican records have proved that priests and religious leaders worldwide have been sexually abusing children as early as 300 CE. And rather than trying to solve the issue and prevent sexual abuse in the first place, priests and bishops within the Catholic Church have been trying to cover up the abuse by moving priests between parishes and dioceses and preventing victims from reporting the crimes to authorities. (Goodstein, “The Pope Accepts…”)

One of the most reasons adults become child molesters is from mental illness, stress, or some form of emotional trauma that can significantly change their behavior and way of thinking. (“The Nature and Scope…”) Some priests suffer from Klinefelter’s Syndrome, a chromosomal condition, which results in a higher levels of androgens, predisposing them to violence and sexual deviation. The most commonly cited reason for sexual abuse of children is the Attachment Theory: that the priests act out of stress and isolation. Often times, abusers have no remorse for their actions, and try to rationalize the abuse as “sexual education” or the victims’ fault.

The scandal has gone unnoticed for almost a century for several reasons. Priests may have wealthy or influential “sponsors” that can prevent negative press and accusations from being released. The position priests hold in society has led to a phenomenon called clericalism, which is the practice of holding priests above “common people.” This has led to the belief that priests are unable to commit crimes, and therefore victims are not believed when they come forward about their abuse. The Vatican’s refusal to tarnish their reputation by admitting wrongdoing has allowed the abuse to continue. (Mea Maxima Culpa) Victims have been too afraid to speak up about the abuse for fear of being disregarded as “attention seekers.” Priests accused of child molestation have been moved from church to church, allowing them to continue the sexual abuse. (The Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe, 24)

Many people have been involved in the coverup and the investigation of this worldwide scandal. Bishops and cardinals, and even the past two popes have known personally about the extent of the sexual abuse, and have done nothing to punish the perpetrators. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops funded a study looking into the extent of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church, in an attempt to make the church safer for its members. This study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was one of the largest studies published on clergical sexual abuse. The Boston Globe published a book including primary sources of victims in vivid detail and statistics on the nature of the abuse, which gained worldwide attention and even a movie adaptation. Many organizations have been formed to support the victims as well. Several associations in Ireland and Australia have been looking into the abuse, trying to achieve justice for victims. Victims have reached out to press agencies to make their story heard, because the Vatican has refused to listen and the police are unable to act, threatened by the Vatican, which has sued several times before (Mea Maxima Culpa)

Expository: Documentary and Research

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God was an eye-opening documentary produced and written by Alex Gibney in 2012. The powerful story about men coming forward about their sexual abuse has won three Emmy Awards and the Best Documentary Award in the London Film Festival, among several others. It centers around five deaf men who were molested as children by Catholic priest Lawrence C. Murphy at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. Murphy would abuse the boys in confessional booths, where they were the most vulnerable. Sometimes, he would organize groups of older boys that would assist him in sexually abusing children.

As young adults, the five victims (among dozens of others) tried to print fliers and place them across town, warning everyone that Murphy was a “serial child molester” (Mea Maxima Culpa). One of these men named Bob Bolger, even attempted to confront Murphy nearly four decades after the abuse, but was brushed off. They tried to make their stories heard, speaking with Cardinals and sending letters directly to the Vatican, but were consistently ignored. The documentary brings light to the Vatican’s knowledge, failure to prevent, and protection of child molesters within the church. It also emphasizes the lack of punishment of sexual abusers who are members of the clergy. A former church psychologist, Patrick Wall said, “We don’t turn our priests in. I wonder what we would have done if it were a slew of murders.” (Mea Maxima Culpa)

The nonfiction book I read was called Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, which contains the findings of the Boston Globe as they attempted to investigate clergical sexual abuse in the early 2000’s. It describes in detail the child-molesting rampage of Father John J. Geoghan, a Boston priest who had over two hundred credible accusations against him. In the Boston archdiocese, Vatican officials, and Cardinal Bernard Law in particular were privy to details of sexual abuse by members of the church. Rather than notifying the public, Law would place child molesting priests on “sick leave,” during which they would be psychologically evaluated and shipped to a new diocese. Victims who attempted to press charges against the church and their abusers would be paid off with large sums of money and silenced with confidentiality agreements. Parishes usually agree to pay for psychotherapy treatments for the victims, but continue to deny that the abuse ever happened. This excerpt from the book clearly sums up the severity of the scandal: “The extent of betrayal—of children’s innocence, of parents’ trust, of priestly vows, of bishops’ responsibilities, of the Church’s basic tenets—[is] breathtaking.”

The next source was one of the most comprehensive reports published on clergical sexual abuse. Often called “The Jay Report,” “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States,” published in 2002, describes the nature of the abuse, analyzes demographics, and investigates possible causes for child molestation. A significant amount of the information in the report was received through an anonymous survey of American priests. According to the Jay Report, abusers most commonly use verbal or physical intimidation, seduction, emotional blackmail, and incentives to coerce the victims. Some priests “groom” their victims, training them from childhood. Along with demographics and the nature of the abuse itself, the Jay Report shows how the Catholic Church is financially impacted by the scandal, and has resorted to covering up abuse cases to protect itself.

The final source I used was an article titled, “Pope Accepts Wuerl’s Resignation as Washington Archbishop, but Calls Him a Model Bishop,” written in The New York Times by Laurie Goodstein, describing the modern Vatican policy on sexual abuse. While my other sources focused on clergical sexual abuse before 2002, this covers Pope Francis’s policies and sexual abuse in a more aware society. It described how Cardinal Wuerl mishandled sexual abuse cases and failed to report them to the vatican. Instead of condemnation for Wuerl’s mismanagement of sexual misconduct cases, Pope Francis called him a model for “the future unity of the Roman Catholic Church.” The pope’s radical statements on sexual abuse, his refusal to believe the victims and his pity of child molesting priests, have led to controversy among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. While his policies on child molestation include protection of the victim and punishment of the perpetrators, the lack of action by the Vatican since he became pope has become abundantly clear as child molesting priests remain free.

Persuasion: Actionable Elements

Canon Law and the C.D.F.

One extremely important step that needs to be made is reform of Canon Law and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, regarding policies on sexual abuse. The reform of both institutions can be brought about through public petition, depending on the relevance of the issue at hand, by members of the Catholic Church. Several instances of Canon Law reforms exist even after 1998.

Since 1922, Canon Law has required sexual abuse cases regarding members of the clergy to be “shrouded in secrecy,” preventing victims and witnesses from reporting sexual abuse to authorities. The element of confidentiality regarding sexual abuse should be stripped away. Victims should be able to report their sexual abuse and press charges against their abuser, even if they confessed to the abuse in a church confessional. And the abuser should be immediately defrocked and jailed for a minimum sentence of nine years if the accusation is plausible. If a priest has confessed to sexually abusing a child, the priest who listened to the confession should be able to report the crimes to the Vatican, law enforcement, or at least the child’s parents.

Currently, the CDF is solely responsible for the investigation and punishment of child molesters within the clergy. However, for the number of clergical sexual abuse cases worldwide, there is a shockingly low number of priests who have been defrocked for child molestation. The sentence tends to be a lifetime of penance, prayer, and solitude. Sexual abuse is fundamentally against the Catholic faith, so if a priest admits to molesting a child, the punishment should be immediate laicization. All sexual abuse cases should also be reported directly to the CDF, rather than being examined for plausibility by members of local dioceses. This inclusion of a “middle man” can lead to cases being lost, or even purposefully misplaced on the way to the Vatican.

Several people may believe that if all plausible allegations of sexual misconduct within the clergy are reported to the authorities, the investigation of each case would lead to the wastage and depletion of church resources. The Vatican has over $8 billion dollars in assets, which continues to grow steadily. It has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on settlements on each victim that presses charges against a priest. This money could be turned toward the investigation and hopefully prevention of clergical sexual abuse, saving the church significant amounts of money.

Others may say that a life of penance and prayer is punishment enough for offending priests because it keeps sexual abusers away from society, and most importantly, children. However, the minimum sentence for a sexual abuser in the United States is nine years in prison, and the maximum sentence is life in prison. For a member of the clergy, there is a double standard. The most severe punishment for a priest is laicization, and he or she is rarely jailed. Sentencing priests to a life of penance and prayer also continues to grant them somewhat reduced diocesan privileges, including high status within the church and among members of society. It also leads victims to believe that their stories are going unheard and that their abusers are going unpunished.

Background Checks and Psychological Evaluation

There should also be an increase in background checks and psychological testing of priests. Currently, the background check one must undergo to join a diocese consists of a State Police Criminal Record Check, Child Abuse History Certificate, and an F.B.I. Criminal Background Fingerprint Check, however a psychiatric evaluation is not necessary (“The Nature and Scope…”). Individuals may be allowed to join the priesthood even if they have committed certain criminal offenses. The only offensive actions that could prevent someone from becoming a priest are abortion, attempted suicide, and murder. Several priests accused of sexual abuse in the last century were sent to psychiatric evaluation and treatment centers. One such center, the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete almost always deemed the abusive priests “incurable pedophiles,” but despite the warning, priests were allowed to continue their service and be around young children. (Mea Maxima Culpa)

Psychiatric evaluations should be mandatory for those studying to become a priests, and should occur periodically during priesthood. These would determine whether an individual is fit to become a priest, and whether incidents including stress and trauma before and during priesthood would affect his performance. If the individual is ever deemed “unsafe,” “dangerous,” or a “pedophile,” he should either be entirely removed from the priesthood or placed in a position where he has little to no contact with other people. Perhaps the Vatican or C.D.F could supply a psychiatrist or psychologist to perform these evaluations, as not to risk breaking Canon Law. The funding for these additional psychiatric evaluations would be drawn from Vatican assets.

Background checks should be expanded to include a reference from someone who knew the individual growing up. This would allow the church to obtain information from a mostly objective source on behavioral issues, substance abuse, abuse endured by the individual, and any form of psychological trauma which would be deeply affecting. If a priest has ever committed any form of abuse before joining the priesthood, he should be barred, or at least strictly monitored in a position where he cannot commit such abuse. Priests are often transferred from one church to another. A comprehensive behavioral history of the priest should be sent along with them to determine whether he has engaged in any criminal behavior while serving as a priest. As a precautionary measure to avoid breaking Canon Law, a special canonist (Canon lawyer) should pass the information between dioceses.

Some people believe that the Vatican would never allow a potentially dangerous individual to become a priest. “If you’re unstable, see a doctor — don’t become a priest,” Pope Francis said in 2016. However, 33% of sexually abusive priests have been diagnosed with a mental illness or personality disorder. 18.2% have sexually abused children before joining the priesthood, and 6.8% have suffered similar abuse. Hundreds of American priests and priests worldwide have been deemed dangerous and unstable, especially toward children. Father Lawrence C. Murphy was even once called a “psychopath” by his therapist, regarding his inability to feel remorse. A history of trauma in childhood, criminality, and certain mental illnesses such as PTSD which impair an individual’s ability to deal with stress increase the likelihood that the individual will go on to abuse someone in the future (“The Nature and Scope…”). Psychological evaluations are necessary to determine whether the priest is and will continue to be no danger to society.

One of the most common counters to increased background checks in general is that it may become an invasion of privacy. However, background checks may be vital in the prevention of sexually abusive priests. As stated before, criminality and especially jail time in one’s past increases the likelihood that an individual will abuse someone in the future. 18.2% of sexually abusive priests have been convicted of physical or sexual abuse and 3.4% have been jailed for other crimes including shoplifting and the possession and dealing of illegal drugs. These convictions could have been uncovered through added background checks before the offenders joined the priesthood, rather than after the sexual abuse of countless children had been committed.

Education and Protection of Vulnerable Groups

The groups that are most vulnerable to abuse are boys between the age of 9 and 14, who come from disadvantaged or low income families. (“The Nature and Scope…”) Educating the public about sexual abuse involving prominent members of society and the clergy has already led to the resignation of those individuals such as bishops and priests. Ireland has slightly distanced itself from the rigid ideals of Canon Law in terms of criminal activity of priests due to propagation of information on the abuse scandal (Mea Maxima Culpa)

Information about sexual abuse by members of the clergy, such as The Jay Report, the Boston Globe’s findings, and The Murphy Report should be more widely disseminated. After a priest is removed from a parish for sexual abuse or even defrocked, the members of that parish should be notified that the priest had been sexually abusing children. Children aged six and older should be educated in a government-sponsored seminar about sexual abuse, progressively more detailed as they get older. The seminar would teach them about possible sex offenders, how to protect themselves, and how to come forward if they are ever victims of sexual abuse.

The groups which are more vulnerable to clergical sexual abuse should be monitored carefully. Priests should not be allowed alone with children; there would be two or more priests with three or more children at all times. Parents would be notified each time a child is alone with or spends an abnormally long amount of time with a priest. Priests should also be banned from performing certain acts which could be conducive to or mistaken for sexual advances, such as hugging, measuring altar boys for robes, having children sit on their laps.

Some may see it as unfair for all priests to be subjected to precautionary measures when only 4% of priests are plausibly accused as sex offenders. But if all priests are subject to these limitations, it would be more difficult for potential sex offenders within the church to even attempt to sexual abuse someone. The point of the measures is not to treat all priests as if they are sex offenders, rather it is to prevent all sex offenders who are priests from abusing someone in the first place.

Others, especially prominent members of the Catholic Church, believe children do not need education on sexual abuse at a young age. Children have a basic concept of morality, and can tell that sexual advances are not generally accepted, even at a young age. The concept of the education is not exactly what these people perceive it to be. Rather than education on sexual abuse itself, children would be taught how to keep themselves safe. If children are educated on sexual abuse, they are more likely to come forward than if they do not realize the actions and their severity. As children, they do not necessarily understand how to report the abuse or even discuss it with other, and therefore need education on such matters. There exist hundreds of cases of sexual abuse of children as young as six years old, so they should be prepared to protect themselves.


Cite this paper

Child Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests. (2021, Jul 17). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/child-sexual-abuse-by-catholic-priests/



What percentage of Catholic priests are sexually active?
I don't know.
What were some abuses of the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church was often accused of being more concerned with power than with helping the poor and needy. The Church was also accused of being corrupt and of having too much influence over the political affairs of European countries.
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